Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

simply forced upon him by the necessities of his condition. The darling object of his London life evidently was, that he might return to his native town, with a handsome competence, and dwell in the bosom of his family; and the yearly visits, which tradition reports him to have made to Stratford, look like any thing but a wish to forget them or be forgotten by them. From what is known of his subsequent life, it is certain that he had, in large measure, that honourable ambition, so natural to an English gentleman, of being the founder of a family; and as soon as he had reached the hope of doing so, he retired to his old home, and there set up his rest, as if his best sunshine of life still waited on the presence of her from whose society he is alleged to have fled away in disappointment and disgust.

To Anne Hathaway, I have little doubt, were addressed, in his early morn of love, three sonnets playing on the author's name, which are hardly good enough to have been his work at any time; certainly none too good to have been the work of his boyhood. And I have met with no conjecture on the point that bears greater likelihoods of truth, than that another three, far different in merit, were addressed, much later in life, to the same object. The prevailing tone and imagery of them are such as he would hardly have used but with a woman in his thoughts; they are fiull-fraught with deep personal feeling, as distinguished from exercises of fancy; and they speak, with unsurpassable tenderness, of frequent absences, such as, before the Sonnets were printed, the Poet had experienced from his wife. I feel morally certain that she was the inspirer of them. I can quote but a part of them :

“ How like a Winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen,
What old December's bareness everywhere!
For Summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute.

" From you I have been absent in the Spring,
When proud-pied April, dress'd in all his trim,

Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him:
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any Summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you; you pattern of all those.
Yet seem'd it Winter still, and, you away,

As with your shadow I with these did play.” And I am scarcely less persuaded that a third cluster, of nine, had the same source. These, too, are clearly concerned with the deeper interests and regards of private life; they carry a homefelt energy and pathos, such as argue them to have had a far other origin than in trials of art; they speak of compelled absences from the object that inspired them, and are charged with regrets and confessions, such as could only have sprung from the Poet's own breast:

“ Alas! 'tis true I have gone here and there,

And made myself a motley to the view;
Gor'd mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new:
Most true it is, that I have look'd on truth

Askance and strangely.
“0, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,

The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide,
Than public means, which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdu'd

To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.
• Accuse me thus: That I have scanted all
Wherein I should your great deserts repay;
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;
That I have frequent been with unknown minds,

And given to time your own dear-purchas'd right.” It will take more than has yet appeared, to convince me, that when the Poet wrote these and other similar lines his

thoughts were travelling anywhere but home to the bride of his youth and mother of his children.

I have run ahead of my theme; but it may as well be added, here, that Francis Meres, writing in 1598, speaks of the Poet's “sugared Sonnets among his private friends”; which indicates the purpose for which they were written. None of them had been printed when this was said of them. They were first collected and published in 1609; the collection being arranged, I think, in “most admirable disorder," so that it is scarce possible to make head or tail to them.

On the 2d of February, 1585, two more children, twins, were christened in the parish church as “Hamnet and Judith, son and daughter to William Shakespeare.” We hear of no more children being added to the family. I must again so far anticipate as to observe, that the son Hamnet was buried in August, 1596, being then in his twelfth year. This is the first severe home-stroke known to have lighted on the Poet.

Tradition has been busy with the probable causes of Shakespeare's going upon the stage. Several causes have been assigned; such as, first, a natural inclination to poetry and acting; second, a deer-stealing frolic, which resulted in making Stratford too hot for him; third, the pecuniary embarrassments of his father. It is not unlikely that all these causes, and perhaps others, may have concurred in prompting the step.

For the first, we have the testimony of Aubrey, who was at Stratford probably about the year 1680. He was an arrant and inveterate hunter after anecdotes, and seems to have caught up, without sifting, whatever quaint or curious matter came in his way. So that no great reliance can attach to what he says, unless it is sustained by other authority. But in this case his words sound like truth, and are supported by all the likelihoods that can grow from what we should presume to have been the Poet's natural turn of mind. “This William,” says he, “being inclined

naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, I guess, about eighteen, and was an actor in one of the playhouses, and did act exceedingly well. He began early to make essays in dramatic poetry, which at that time was very low, and his plays took well. He was a handsome, well-shaped man, very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit. Ben Jonson and he did gather humours of men daily wherever they came.”

This natural inclination, fed by the frequent theatrical performances at Stratford, would go far, if not suffice of itself, to account for the Poet's subsequent course of life. Before 1586, no doubt, he was well acquainted with some of the players, with whom we shall hereafter find him associated. In their exhibitions, rude as these were, he could not but have been a greedy spectator and an apt scholar. Thomas Greene, a fellow-townsman of his, was already one of their number. All this might not indeed be enough to draw him away from Stratford; but when other reasons came, if others there were, for leaving, these circumstances would hold out to him an easy and natural access and invitation to the stage. Nor is there any extravagance in supposing that, by 1586, he may have taken some part as actor or writer, perhaps both, in the performances of the company which he afterwards joined.

The deer-stealing matter as given by Rowe is as follows: That Shakespeare fell into the company of some wild fellows who were in the habit of stealing deer, and who drew him into robbing a park owned by Sir Thomas Lucy, of Charlecote, near Stratford. That, being prosecuted for this, he lampooned Sir Thomas in some bitter verses ; which made the Knight so sharp after him, that he had to steal himself off and take shelter in London.

Several have attempted to refute this story; but the main substance of it stands approved by too much strength of credible tradition to be easily overthrown. And it is certain from public records that the Lucys had great power at Stratford, and were not seldom engaged in disputes with

the corporation. Mr. Halliwell met with an old record entitled “the names of them that made the riot upon Master Thomas Lucy, Esquire.” Thirty-five inhabitants of Stratford, chiefly tradespeople, are named in the list, but no Shakespeares among them.

Knight, over-zealous in the Poet's behalf, will not allow any thing to be true that infers the least moral blemish in his life: he therefore utterly discredits the story in question, and hunts it down with arguments more ingenious than sound. In writing biography, special-pleading is not good; and I would fain avoid trying to make the Poet out any better than he was. Little as we know about him, it is evident enough that he had his frailties, and ran into divers faults, both as a poet and as a man. And when we hear him confessing, as in a passage already quoted, “ Most true it is, that I have looked on truth askance and strange. ly”; we may be sure he was but too conscious of things that needed to be forgiven; and that he was as far as any one from wishing his faults to pass for virtues. Deer-stealing, however, was then a kind of fashionable sport, and whatever might be its legal character, it was not morally regarded as involving any criminality or disgrace. So that the whole thing may be justly treated as a mere youthful frolic, wherein there might indeed be some indiscretion, and a deal of vexation to the person robbed, but no stain on the party engaged in it.

The precise time of the Poet's leaving Stratford is not known; but we cannot well set it down as later than 1586. His children, Hamnet and Judith, were born, as I have said, in the early part of 1585; and for several years before that time his father's affairs were drooping. The prosecutions of Sir Thomas Lucy, added to his father's straitness of means, may well have made him desirous of quitting Stratford; while the meeting of inclination and opportunity in his acquaintance with the players may have determined him where to go, and what to do. The company were already in a course of thrift; the demand for their labours was

« ZurückWeiter »